Assessing Risks of Shallow Riparian Groundwater Quality Near an Oil Sands Tailings Pond
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The potential discharge of groundwater contaminated by oil sands process-affected water (OSPW) is a concern for aquatic ecosystems near tailings ponds. Groundwater in the area, but unaffected by OSPW, may contain similar compounds, complicating the assessment of potential ecological impacts. In this study, 177 shallow groundwater samples were collected from riparian areas along the Athabasca River and tributaries proximate to oil sands developments. For "pond-site" samples (71; adjacent to study tailings pond), Canadian aquatic life guidelines were exceeded for 11 of 20 assessed compounds. However, "non-pond" samples (54; not near any tailings pond) provided similar exceedances. Statistical analyses indicate that pond-site and non-pond samples were indistinguishable for all but seven parameters assessed, including salts, many trace metals, and fluorescence profiles of aromatic naphthenic acids (ANA). This suggests that, regarding the tested parameters, groundwater adjacent to the study tailings pond generally poses no greater ecological risk than other nearby groundwaters at this time. Multivariate analyses applied to the groundwater data set separated into 11 smaller zones support this conclusion, but show some variation between zones. Geological and potential OSPW influences could not be distinguished based on major ions and metals concentrations. However, similarities in indicator parameters, namely ANA, F, Mo, Se, and Na-Cl ratio, were noted between a small subset of samples from two pond-site zones and two OSPW samples and two shallow groundwater samples documented as likely OSPW affected. This indicator-based screening suggests that OSPW-affected groundwater may be reaching Athabasca River sediments at a few locations.
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